The event was WWII, the place was Poland, in 1942. The Nazis herded hundreds of thousands of Jews into a 16-block area that came to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto. The Ghetto was sealed and the Jewish families ended up behind its walls, only to await certain death.
Irena Sendler was so appalled by the conditions that she made it her life mission to rescue Jewish children.
To be able to enter the Ghetto legally, Irena managed to get a pass from Warsaws Epidemic Control Department and she visited the Ghetto daily, reestablished contacts and brought food, medicines and clothing. But 5,000 people were dying a month from starvation and disease in the Ghetto, and she decided to help the Jewish children to get out.
Irena Sendler began smuggling children out in an ambulance. She recruited at least one person from each of the ten centers of the Social Welfare Department. With their help, she issued hundreds of false documents with forged signatures. Irena Sendler successfully smuggled almost 2,500 Jewish children to safety and gave them temporary new identities.
Some children were taken out in gunnysacks or body bags. Some were buried inside loads of goods. A mechanic took a baby out in his toolbox. Some kids were carried out in potato sacks, others were placed in coffins, some entered a church in the Ghetto which had two entrances. One entrance opened into the Ghetto, the other opened into the Aryan side of Warsaw. They entered the church as Jews and exited as Christians. “Can you guarantee they will live?” Irena later recalled the distraught parents asking. But she could only guarantee they would die if they stayed. “In my dreams,” she said, “I still hear the cries when they left their parents.”
The children were given false identities and placed in homes, orphanages and convents. Irena Sendler carefully noted, in coded form, the children’s original names and their new identities. She kept the only record of their true identities in jars buried beneath an apple tree in a neighbor’s back yard, across the street from German barracks, hoping she could someday dig up the jars, locate the children and inform them of their past.
But the Nazis became aware of Irena’s activities, and on October 20, 1943 she was arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo, who broke her feet and legs. She ended up in the Pawiak Prison, but no one could break her spirit. Though she was the only one who knew the names and addresses of the families sheltering the Jewish children, she withstood the torture, refusing to betray either her associates or any of the Jewish children in hiding.
Sentenced to death, Irena was saved at the last minute when a bribed halted the execution. She escaped from prison but for the rest of the war she was pursued by the Gestapo.
After the war she dug up the jars and used the notes to track down the 2,500 children she placed with adoptive families and to reunite them with relatives scattered across Europe. But most lost their families during the Holocaust in Nazi death camps.
The children had known her only by her code name Jolanta. But years later, after she was honored for her wartime work, her picture appeared in a newspaper. “A man, a painter, telephoned me,” said Sendler, “`I remember your face,’ he said. `It was you who took me out of the ghetto.’ I had many calls like that!”
Irena Sendler did not think of herself as a hero. She claimed no credit for her actions. “I could have done more,” she said. “This regret will follow me to my death.”
In 2007, Irena was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but was not selected. She died May 12, 2008, at age 98. [ Read More About Her ]
Btw, the Peace Prize in 2007 went to Al Gore.